Unrequited Infatuations: Odyssey of a Rock and Roll Consigliere (A Cautionary Tale)
(Hachette Books, 2021)
There is literally no better line to begin a review of Unrequited Infatuations, the autobiography of America’s number one cultural entrepreneur, rock and roll’s scholar and historian, accomplished actor, radio DJ, political activist, band leader and consigliere Steven Van Zandt than the opening verse of Dante’s Inferno, “nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, mi ritrovai in una selva oscura, che la diritta via era smarrita” (shame on you if you need an English translation). Just about halfway through his life, in fact, after busting his tail off to achieve artistic and popular success as a guitarist and co-producer with his lifelong friend Bruce Springsteen in their legendary E Street Band, Van Zandt said goodbye to his compatriots, turned his back to success and financial security, and, as a result, found himself in the “selva oscura,” with no direction home as Mr. Robert Zimmerman, one of the many, many artists who have asked for and benefited from Van Zandt’s expertise as a producer and otherwise over the course of his career, sang in one of the greatest songs of all time.
However, Unrequited Infatuations is not a tale of two separate lives. Rather, it is the story of how one can be surprised and rewarded if one manages to stay committed to finding a larger purpose in life than momentary fulfillment; if one understands and believes that often giving is a form of receiving, which might as well turn out into more consistent, even lasting fulfillment and self-realization and, in this way, bridge the two halves of one’s life and make it whole in proverbial Hegelian fashion. In this respect, Van Zandt’s autobiography is the most prototypically anti-Franklinian autobiography an American artist could write. In spite, or perhaps because of all his successes and accomplishments, which are many, significant, and at least on one occasion—Artists United Against Apartheid, his work to take down the racist South African political regime in the 1980s—the stuff for a history book, the volume is not a hymn to self-actualization as the outcome of self-interested individualism and the search for a national rhetoric to build an inward-bent collective utilitarian self. On the contrary, the book continuously presents the self in relation to and in dialogue with others, both privately and publicly. Its usefulness is communitarian because it is outward, directed at the service of others. It highlights an ethos of shared experiences intended as the path to self-fulfillment, purpose, and the ability to pick oneself up when things don’t go as one had hoped for or when one, inevitably, makes mistakes and falls behind.
No surprise, in the light of this, that the book comes out after four years in which the main political actor of our abysmally outdated, immensely corrupt, indecently unrepresentative, and flat-out antidemocratic political system promoted policies and employed a rhetoric that, conceptually speaking, are the exact opposite of this view of life, to put it mildly. Likewise, it is not a surprise that, chronologically but also thematically speaking, this story begins in a 1950s and ’60s Italian American environment in Boston, where those values were lived, experienced, and nurtured in Van Zandt’s maternal grandparents’ attitudes toward work and family because of a divorce that, on the one hand, essentially erased the biological father from Van Zandt’s life, and on the other forced his mother to move in with her family before relocating to suburban New Jersey, when Ms. Lento married Van Zandt’s adoptive father, a construction engineer inspector and a Goldwater Republican. For the same reasons, I think, Van Zandt addresses race at the beginning of the book twice over. Initially, by way of chronicling the tension of a car ride in South Africa in the third-person written prologue. Then, within the context of his Italian family in the first chapter. Now writing in the first person as he does in the rest of the memoir, before returning to the third person in “Epilogue,” he recalls his mother telling a real estate agent “to get lost” because she had asked Mrs. Van Zandt to keep her son inside the house since “she had lost several sales from people thinking” young Steven was Black, due to his summer tan from camp. Work, kinship, and race, along with technology, are thus introduced immediately as the main themes addressed within the larger structural framework that the previously mentioned ethos of shared experiences as the path to self-fulfillment, purpose, and the search for identity provide.
The first part of the memoir, which recounts Van Zandt’s musical journey from native Boston to the big time show business via suburban Central Jersey, is the story of how those values presented themselves as a source of inner sustainment for the young kid who fell in love with the music that was helping to change the world around him, even though the forms in which they presented themselves seemed to clash with that epochal transformation of customs, beginning with the new ways youngsters interrelated sexually and socially, in the private and the public sphere alike. Van Zandt is psychically fascinated by the figure of Dean Martin because of their shared Italian American identity, because of the Ohio native’s talent, and the way he handles the entertainment scene of the time, to the point that he ended up representing Van Zandt’s “future role model” for how to carry on his role in the E Street Band. At the same time, however, Dino also epitomized an old-fashioned idea of manhood, masculinity, and entertainment. He was unable, perhaps even unwilling, to conceive of popular culture without a tuxedo and perfect hairstyle, the embodiment of the Italian bella figura. On his TV show, Van Zandt recalls, Martin would trash the Beatles and the Stones for their long hair. Yet, the Beatles, the Stones and all the other bands of the British Invasion embodied for Van Zandt the concrete, tangible example that one could really blur the lines between work and play, what Arnold Toynbee famously considered “the supreme accomplishment.” Van Zandt writes, work “isn’t alienated from one’s identity but is one’s identity.” No wonder that the typical nine-to-five, high school to college, as well as the “American monoculture in general” got out of Van Zandt’s system in a heartbeat and never made a visit again.
In a way, this is the central question around which the entire book revolves and one of its many achievements. And how could it not be, given the centrality that rock and roll and popular music play in twentieth-century-modernity? Naturally, as he describes his journey to achieve an artistic identity, Van Zandt takes the reader on a journey that is at once personal as well as a social history of post-WWII America. For example, not only does he recount and explain the modalities of the importance of the British Invasion for the American youth of his days, but, to me more importantly, it sets the British Invasion in its proper context, both in the material and the more institutional one, so to speak. As a result, the reader enters a world long gone, one made of many TV rock and roll shows that introduced those British bands, as well as Black soul singers, to America, especially white America; countless bars where entertainment came in the form of live musical performances on small and larger stages where myriads of bands battled and learned the craft necessary to become a musician and put together a live show worth this name. Likewise, the reader learns how kids in disparate parts of the country created rock magazines because of their enthusiasm and passion for what Van Zandt defines as the Renaissance, by which he means the time when the best art also happens to be the art that sells the most. Finally, by describing how he got out of Vietnam, he portrays the war’s impact on the mind of America’s youth and the racial division that exploded with the riots of the late 1960s, from Newark to Detroit.
The social history of rock and roll, of course, is also the history of technology, which Van Zandt skillfully weaves into the memoir, mapping all the major developments that accompanied rock music from the beginning to the digital age. Just like the radio and the microphone were integral to Frank Sinatra’s artistic development and career, the 45 discs, the portable player, the LP, the advent of MTV and music videos, were essential to the success of many great rockers and bands. Additionally, Van Zandt details the production process, a craft in which he excels. Indeed, he details the process whereby, in the first phase of his artistic development, he started to think about himself as a producer rather than a performer. This capacity of distancing himself from this history while simultaneously recalling his life as a participant in it, the ability to be a participant observer, is on full display in his masterful interpretation of Jon Landau’s famous definition of Bruce Springsteen as “rock and roll future.” Van Zandt literally teaches us, and, I would argue, Landau too, that that sentence was not about Springsteen, but about where rock and roll was headed. That is to say, where Springsteen was taking rock and roll and the cultural and artistic past that rock and roll signified, from Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg to Little Richard and The Band, via countless other artists and forms. After all, Springsteen brought the saxophone into a rock and roll band, made it central to his music, and put it on the cover of his career-saving and defining record in the form of a big Black man, the great Clarence Clemons. Everybody else would need to catch up (they’re still trying).
Why, then, one wonders, would someone dare conceive and leave somebody and something that he had worked so hard with and at? The answer, Van Zandt explains, is to evolve, as an artist, but also, I would say, as a person, which is to say, as an American. It makes perfect sense, in this perspective, that the seeds of his departure from E Street were planted outside of the United States, in still-Cold-War-divided Germany, when, during The River tour, a German fan asked him, “Why are you putting missiles in my country?” That question prompted the beginning of the rapid politicization of the E Street’s guitarist, resulting in the five records he made after Men Without Women, one of the best twenty records of the 1980s as far as I am concerned, as well as his previously mentioned Artists United Against Apartheid project.
The memoir’s section on South Africa is by far the most intense and, to me, important part of the volume. To begin with, it reiterates the underlying significance that Blackness plays in our life, whether directly at the individual level or because of the structures of our history, by which I mean the history of modernity. Whereas Van Zandt does not trace any linear connection between his upbringing, his fatal attraction and cultivated, nurtured love for what is organically and historically an interracial artistic musical form, and his involvement in taking down the South African regime, it is hard for me not to make the connection between the Italian American kid whose mother had to half-school him in race relations in America after being asked by a real estate agent who wanted to sell private property for profit to hide him, which is to say, to make him invisible (Ralph Ellison, anybody?), the appeal that interracial music had to him, and the willed commitment to put an end to the horror that the fear of Blackness elicits in white people. What makes this section of the book truly superb, however, is how Van Zandt meshes the personal story and the political history that prompted him to act, as well as the ways change occurred. Van Zandt does not water down of the complexity of the politics and the issues involved, beginning with the difficulty of bringing together the different South African factions and various African American activists and artists, and dealing with the ignorant hypocrisy of a certain white liberal artistic and political establishment. What Van Zandt puts on the page here is a lesson in history, political activism, and dare I say, critical race theory, beginning with the fact that he underscores the international dimensions of Blackness and its own diversity, to which he adds, “In their (Black civil rights activists and community leaders) mind, South Africa was a ‘Black issue.’ Only it wasn’t. In fact, no racial issue is a ‘Black issue’.” I would assign this part of the book to every high school kid in the Western world, certainly in America. In a way, Van Zandt himself found a way to do this when, years later, he started his TeachRock Foundation, whose mission is to bring American popular music into the classroom of American schools, the best thing that happened to our country since the Cubs won the World Series.
Regrettably, however, the foundation and the work it does is a moment in the book that I think does not get the space that it deserves. One of the reasons might be the absurd amount of projects the musician-producer-activist started to get involved in and initiate after his political activism essentially closed the door of one too many record offices and left him stranded in the metaphorical desert for seven long years, until David Chase called Van Zandt after seeing him introducing the Rascals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and offered him a part in what would become the first and only TV series that made television into an art. This, of course, is The Sopranos. At just about the same time, another Italian American guy from Central Jersey had the good sense to reunite the band, including its original guitarist. From then on, for Van Zandt life has been a deluge of activities, both as music and film producer, actor, screenwriter, director, TV show creator, and, most recently, before the pandemic put a hold on physical mobility and social gatherings, frontman of his own reunited band, the Disciples of Soul, which led to the re-launching of and even the re-dedication to his own musical career with new records and new music. Van Zandt chronicles all these undertakings, justly taking pride in and celebrating them.
Nonetheless, he also insists on the disconnection between the high-level artistic quality of many of these enterprises and the fact that, fundamentally, many of them did not find a popular audience. In other words, he juxtaposes this disconnection to the previously mentioned musical renaissance of the 1960s, which, again, combined artistic quality and popular consensus. Furthermore, the cadence of the entire last section of the memoir is dictated by the sentence “Nobody heard it” or its variation, “Nobody saw it,” whether he refers to a musical or cinematic project of his or in which he was involved in some fashion. The sentence helps the author carry on the book the way “So it goes” helps carry on the narrative of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. But aside from the narrative strategy, there are other reasons for this rhetorical expedient. Partly, this is a gesture at irony, as some people did listen to Darlene Love’s wonderful Introducing Darlene Love, which Van Zandt produced, just like some people did watch David Chase’s very intelligent film Not Fade Away starring the late, great James Gandolfini. Partly, this is an attempt at reiterating the idea of the essential transitory nature, perhaps even futility, of success as something that does not define one’s identity and work. Moreover, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, in which Van Zandt makes a cameo appearance as the crooner Jerry Vale, did not go unnoticed, and while it did not receive the critical success of, say, Goodfellas, the film likely will, in due time, be given greater recognition and critical appreciation. Likewise, Van Zandt’s own TV mafia-comedy show, Lilyhammer, the first show Netflix ever produced, enjoyed both commercial and critical success, in Europe as well as in the US before being inexplicably shut down for business reasons, which tells you everything you need to understand about the essential nature of business. Partly, this self-deprecation fits the overall message of the memoir that in the end what one can do is their part; that we don’t have control over our life, if not minimally, and that minimal part demands us to continue to move forward, one way or another to give life a purpose, the ultimate meaning of this book. And yet, there is, I think, another, larger meaning to this insistence on the distance between artistic achievement and popularity, or, in other words, between beauty and its recognition. To an extent this has always been the case. It is intrinsic to art and human nature. Nobody read Moby Dick in Melville’s lifetime. It took the book several decades before being recognized for the masterpiece it is. But there is no question that we are living in a time where the public discourse is at the lowest level one can imagine and mediocrity, artistic and otherwise, reigns supreme with no end in sight. The distance between artistic achievement and lack of popular recognition is the cipher of this ubiquitous mediocrity. And one of the reasons for this state of affairs that such a divide highlights is the political economy of our social life. Where there was a small stage, there are now TV screens. Where there was a baseball diamond, there is now a Dollar Store or a Starbucks, depending on the neighborhood’s or the village’s social class. Where there was an editor willing to use the commercial success of mediocre books to produce, publish, and sustain very good books, there is a manger or a consultant whose job is to make one more dollar for the stockholders. Where there was a rock and roll TV show, there is now a political talk show in which, say, several men, including the omnipresent clergyman, discuss abortion or some corporate executive discusses the state of the economy (women and workers need not apply).
Unrequited Infatuations closes with the author’s own political platform, which might not get him many votes but surely earned him a personal folder in a computer in Langley, VA. Yet, Van Zandt knows that the solution to mediocrity is not in the hands of one individual, let alone his hands. There’s no John Wayne coming to rescue anybody (thankfully), because the structure is always bigger and more powerful than the individual. Still, what one can do is dedicate their life to achieving greatness, in whatever form. One can use the currency one gained to revive another great artist’s career, as Van Zandt did with Gary U.S. Bonds or Darlene Love; to preserve an art, its historical memory, and build its archive to make it available to present and future generations, as Van Zandt did with his Underground Garage radio show; to land his voice and convince other artists to land theirs to others, as Van Zandt did in support of oppressed Black South Africans; to educate and keep kids in school and teach them their history and where they come from as Van Zandt did with TeachRock. These are all concrete steps to leave mediocrity behind us and, in the case of TeachRock, plant the seeds that one day will give us and those coming after us more greatness, more democracy, more respect for one another, and more beauty in a world that desperately needs them. In the end, this is one of the two main reasons why one should buy and read Unrequited Infatuations. The other being, as the reader will realize after finishing the book, that Steven Van Zandt is an American treasure to cherish.
Samuele F.S. Pardini (Rail): Writers write for two main reasons: because they think they have something to say that is worth reading and because they want to be read. What did you think you had to say with your memoir that is worth people’s attention?
Steven Van Zandt: I wrote the book with three reasons in mind. First of all, I’ve witnessed a lot of history. I only missed the first decade of rock and roll. So, I’ve absorbed the entire history of rock and roll since then. There’s a lot of history in it. I’ve been involved with a lot of crafts through the years, and I am sharing a lot of the crafts that I’ve learned that maybe could be helpful to people, because most of all I want the book to be useful. The first half of the book is the story of a young kid from Jersey who makes it to the top of rock and roll. That’s a good story, and it’s fine for the first half of the book. But the second half of the book starts to get into the bigger themes, more universal themes. So, it’s more than a music book for music people. There are themes such as searching for one’s identity, searching for purpose in the world, searching for spiritual enlightenment, and things that most people go through, but most of all I think it’s all about the disappointment that one can experience in life and what one does with that disappointment. I spent fifteen years trying to make it in rock and roll. I finally make it, which again is the first half of the book, and then I walk away, and I start my life all over again. My life ends as I knew it. And I start from scratch, with nothing! No plan, no future, nothing. And yet, everything I’ve accomplished in my life, I’ve accomplished since then, since the moment I thought my life was over. I think that this is something that people could be hopefully inspired by if they themselves have a situation in life where they feel like their life is over, it has ended, and they have no future in front of them. If they can find a way to move forward and not become a drug addict, an alcoholic, or think to commit suicide, all of which occurred to me. If you can find a way to move forward, destiny will surprise you and show you that there’s more to do in this world. So, I am hoping that the book is actually useful.
Rail: Any good writer sets the stage at the very beginning. You do the same by triangulating between three main themes that essentially form the bulk of the memoir: To begin with, there is the idea of consciousness. You repeat twice in the prologue, “you can’t sell consciousness.” Secondly, the importance of technology for R&R, starting with the 45 portable player; and thirdly, the importance of growing up Italian American. Let me start from the latter theme, which is a constant thread in both your own life and your work. In spite of you growing up in a time when on the one hand the traditions of the old ways were being broken, and on the other the generational cultural and behavioral divide between parents and children grew larger, and despite the fact that you felt like an outsider, a freak, it seems to me that the Italian veneration for work and family of the immigrants and the first generations of Italian Americans that your grandma and grandpa Lento identify for you grounded you, it provided you with some sort of center, a stability, however contested and troubled that might have been.
Van Zandt: I think that’s probably correct in this way. When parents get divorced, that’s usually a bad thing, it doesn’t help with the kids becoming more stable. But in my case, it did help me become more stable because at the age of maybe three, we moved in with my mother’s parents, my Italian grandparents, and there’s still aunts, uncles all over the place. And then, I was the first grandchild which, as you know…
Rail: It matters, especially if it’s a boy!
Van Zandt: That’s right! And so, I was surrounded by a lot of love. And I really do believe that that created some kind of stability in me because even though I was going through complete chaos—and maybe my whole life has been all chaos—it’s something I never really worried too much about. I never really panicked. I never really get too depressed. I tend to find a way to move forward somehow, and I think that comes from a very young age, being loved enough to be stable within yourself. I don’t have any other explanation. So, I think you might be right.
Rail: The other line of the Italian American identity I’d like you to address is the racial question. You write that in the summer you got “so tan at camp that a local real estate agent asked my mother to keep me inside because she had lost several sales from people thinking I was Black. My mother told her to get lost. I overheard, so she had to try and explain it to me. ‘Some people don’t like Black people’.” Do you think that this has anything to do with the fact that historically in the world of popular music the Italian American artist has a crucial role in making the Black artist, and Black musical culture, visible without appropriating Black music?
Van Zandt: There’s a connection if you’re involved in music or theater. There’s a connection between the Black and white which is inseparable, especially when you talk about rock and roll. There’s no doubt about it. It’s a combination that was evident in Elvis Presley’s very first single: blues on one side and country, bluegrass on the other. That combination of Black and white created rock and roll as we know it. It’s the only art form of that nature, I think. It’s been tied together from the very beginning, since Little Richard opened his mouth and out came liberation. When we were growing up in the sixties it was interesting because the British invasion came to America, it put all the heroes, all the pioneers out of work. Only a few people would survive The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and the whole British invasion: the Beach Boys, the Four Seasons and Motown, by which I mean soul music: Motown, Stax, Curtis Mayfield, some of the New Orleans stuff with Allen Toussaint. Soul music thrived along with the British invasion throughout the sixties. If you watch one of the TV shows we had, I don’t know how many we had, seven, eight TV shows on every week. I mean rock and roll TV shows, can you imagine such a time? The Rolling Stones would come on the show, and then Smokey Robinson. Then The Kinks come on and then Curtis Mayfield, almost every show. Rock, soul, rock, soul, rock and soul. Of course, The Beatles and The Stones, really all the British invasion, The Who, The Yardbirds, were covering Black music and re-introducing it to us. You know, I’d never heard of Little Richard, I’d never heard of Chuck Berry, I’d never heard of Arthur Alexander or Larry Williams, I'd never heard of these people until the British Invasion educated us about Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. How would I have known these people? But it was a wonderful education that we got from the British bands. So, there was a connection of total integration between the Blacks and whites from the beginning.
Rail: The Sopranos is the first and, in my view, only TV show that has turned TV into a work of art. What do you think is the underlying motif, the reason as to why a TV show achieved artistic status and became a cultural moment? To put it differently, if you want to do the cultural history of the US from the late 1990s to the first decade of the new century, you need to include The Sopranos. How do you frame the show in that history?
Van Zandt: I think this question has been analyzed in a hundred different ways, but for me, if I think about it, it seems to be a perfect storm of elements coming together that you could not predict. You had, I guess, three main elements. HBO at that point had been cruising kind of in neutral since the late sixties or whenever that is, thirty years, and they needed to do something big. So, they took a big chance. That’s number one. Number two, they went to David Chase, who had been in TV his whole life and was tired of it and wanted to move on to movies. He was gonna do one more TV show and break all the rules. He didn’t care about the rules anymore, and it was going to be a very personal show for him, because in a way it was a thirteen-part movie about a mother who basically wants to kill her own son. I mean, that’s the story. When I auditioned for him, when I went down to speak with him the first time I said, “David, you know, I am from an Italian family, I know a million Italian families. Nobody is gonna believe that mother.” He said, “That’s my mother.”
Rail: It makes me think of The Godfather. Mario Puzo said he modeled the godfather character after his own mother.
Van Zandt: That’s right, that’s right. Anyway, you have HBO ready to do something completely risky, David Chase ready to do something very, very artistically personal, not caring about the rules, and then Jimmy Gandolfini being this extremely odd choice for leading man. And it would be written in a way that for the first time he was not necessarily gonna be a good guy. He was going to be very relatable but a very mixed gray area, an anti-hero. And in the production of it, David Chase was extreme. The lighting is almost cinema verité. It’s almost a documentary. No evidence of lighting, no camera movement, too many characters, too many subplots, no stars really. Lorraine Bracco from Goodfellas a little, but she’s doing a completely different role. So, it was a coming together of all these things. And somehow, believe me, when we did the pilot, they went eleven months and 29 days before they decided to pick it up. It was a big risk, and the pilot was obviously not a hit show. Not in my mind, anyway. I mean, we liked it, we enjoyed it, but a mob boss has ducks flying into his pool and the ducks fly away, and he has a nervous breakdown. That’s the making of a hit show? It was written so cleverly, again with no rules. If you switch around the channels, and you come around to The Sopranos, and then you switch to another show, everything else looks so phony, and so slick, plain Hollywood. And now you come back to reality. It’s all these elements at once, you couldn’t plan it. It just happened, as destiny sometimes decides.
Rail: I think the genius of Lilyhammer is that it added comedy to the mafia film/TV show genre on the one hand and negotiated differences of all sorts on the other: geographic, linguistic, cultural, even economic, by which I mean the way it represents business, family, gender, and the social safety net in Scandinavia as seen by a mobster.
Van Zandt: Thank you. I am very proud of it because there’s no other show like it in the world. It was completely original, and the first international show and the first show on Netflix, which people don’t remember. The very first show. And I always salute and celebrate Ted Sarandos, the creative boss at Netflix, for picking that as a first show. Like you say, a show with subtitles, a little Norwegian show, the company depended on it. This whole new idea of having content, the company depended on it, it’s all gonna rest on this crazy Norwegian show. Luckily, Americans loved it. A lot of people discovered it or re-discovered it during the pandemic, during the quarantine, because we did not get a whole lot of publicity when it came out. There were only two people at Netflix when I got there. Nobody knew what to do at that point as far as marketing. But people are discovering it every day. I may go back and do more if Netflix wants me to. ’Cause I love that show.
Rail: Let’s go back to that 45 portable player. A careful reader of your memoir notices that one of its achievements is that it traces the intertwining of technology and rock history. You take the reader from the 45 portable player to the studio producing records to MTV, which, as you write, “killed rock’s importance.” Why did MTV kill rock’s importance, but not rock music? Can you elaborate on that? I think it’s an important point in the biography.
Van Zandt: We barely had a magazine when we started. Rolling Stone came later. We had teenage magazines, sixteen magazines, Crawdaddy, Cream, but you can barely see a picture of your favorite rock band. No videos. So, when those bands came to town, it was a big deal. Everybody knew it for months ahead, and it was the most important thing in life. When MTV started showing them twenty-four hours a day, it diluted the significance of it in terms of the exclusivity, in terms of the specialness of a live performance. It was the most important thing in your life, and suddenly you could see it all day long. Naturally, it’s gonna dilute that significance, but as far as the significance of the music itself, of course it’ll never stop being significant as far as I am concerned. And that’s why I dedicated my last 25 years to my radio format, my record company, my TeachRock.org education programs. Everything I do is dedicated to saving the endangered species of rock and soul, and the reason being because I think they’re different. I think they’re different vehicles than all the other art forms, all the other forms of communication. It is the best medium for communicating substance, and I still believe that.
Rail: The radio programs you created are an attempt to on the one hand bring art to the masses, and the other to build a historical memory of an important part of American and world popular music, in a country that, culturally speaking, suffers from amnesia. Clearly, you embrace technology, it offers possibilities to make art in your view. How do you see the role of the web in relation to popular music? In the book, you mention a huge web project that you have not been able to accomplish yet, but that you think would be a game changer.
Van Zandt: It's a little hard to measure because in some ways there’s more music around now than ever before. Rock music is no longer part of the mainstream industry. We know that we don’t sell records anymore, but rock is still the biggest thing live, thank god. And everybody who has a rock band or writes a rock song can put it on the internet tomorrow. So, this is both good and bad because there’s no more curation. That’s what my radio show really is, curation. And again, it is plentiful, it’s all over the place, but it’s no longer the mass shared experience of the sixties when the music was all over the place and yet it was great music, it was uplifting music. Now it’s all very, very mediocre. You don’t have greatness around you anymore. We’re no longer in an era of greatness. We’re in an era of mediocrity everywhere you look, from our government to the arts. And so, instead of the communication helping, it just makes you more depressed. The more information you get, the more bad news you’re getting. So, it’s a little bit different, and it’s a lot less focused. We don’t really experience a mass shared experience anymore. We’re fragmented to the point where there are millions of fragments as opposed to how it was in the sixties and all the way to the eighties really. A lot of people would experience the same thing at the same time, and it was mostly good. We were very much a minor culture in the sixties, completely one station per town playing the same things. We were really a minor culture, and even in the fragmentation of the seventies still we only had one station, maybe two and all the way into the eighties. There weren’t a hundred stations that you could listen to. There were only one or two, maybe three at the most. Still, people could experience the same kind of things, which is why rock music was at its peak. Pop too in the eighties with sales. You’ll never see anything like it again. You had to stand in line to get into Madison Square Garden. There were twenty-five bands waiting to play Madison Square Garden. It was just exploding everywhere you looked because of MTV. It became a mass shared experience. If you got hot on MTV, it would actually be selling records, it would. It made each band less important, but it made the whole thing more important. Everybody was able to profit from it financially, even though artistically, you know… You had some artistic visions with Peter Gabriel or David Bowie, the guys who were more artistically inclined. You’d see some great artistic moments, but mostly it’s just girls and cars and more girls. It wasn’t the greatest moment artistically, necessarily. But it worked.
Rail: One example of the synergy of art and technology as well as consciousness is the Artists United Against Apartheid project. What convinced you that “Sun City” could have worked, that it had a real shot of achieving your goal? The regime was obviously at the end as you write. Still, you were up against an institution that had been established decades ago, enmeshed in all sorts of economic and geopolitical interests. And you had on one side Ronald Reagan, on the other Margaret Thatcher supporting the regime. This is David versus Goliath for real.
Van Zandt: At that moment, I just became totally invested in it because my previous life had ended. I knew I had blown my life by leaving the E Street Band. I was already on the political path, but the energy became more focused and more exclusive because I had nothing else. Suddenly, it became everything to me, to understand what I was doing politically and hoping that something could come from it. And I happened to be in South Africa at that moment. So, it all went into that particular issue, all my energy. I had to go down there twice to really get it, because it was hard not to get a lot of subterfuge, a lot of camouflage, a lot of lies. They were pretending to have reforms, pretending to do better, and everybody was supporting them. And I am like: everybody is wrong. So, what is the strategy? How do we take these guys down, for real. At that point, I had gone from artist-journalist to artist-journalist-activist. I now was not only going to write about it. I wanted to take the government down, get [Nelson] Mandela out of jail, and hopefully end the entire apartheid regime. So, how did I do that? I sat down and figured it out. The sport boycott is working; the home run is going to be the economic sanctions, that’s how you end the party. What’s in-between is the cultural boycott. So, if we really succeed in the cultural boycott, we can not only cut them off culturally, but also explain to everybody what is going on down there. The song had to explain what’s going on. Actually, it’s a little bit complicated, but somehow I wrote down the lyrics as reference lyrics, saying exactly what’s happening with the intention of maybe dressing it up later and maybe making it a little more poetic or something, a little more interesting. But my three musketeers, three of the four musketeers, Danny Schechter, Arthur Baker, and Hart Perry told me “No no no, you don’t change a thing. This tells the exact story.” So, we were able to tell the story and use the Sun City resort as a symbol of the phony homeland policy, where they were forcing the Black people out of South Africa proper into their phony homelands, and going to turn those homelands into separate countries, and then declare South Africa a democracy and bring them back as immigrant labor. It was a very clever and brilliant and evil scheme that we really exposed. The whole challenge was that it wasn’t a big issue in America. It was big in Europe, and obviously the UN was involved, but very few people knew about it in America. The challenge was to raise the consciousness enough where inevitably the sanctions bill is going to get across Reagan’s desk. It’s gonna get there. He will veto it, which was for sure. But do we have enough consciousness to override the veto? And that’s exactly what happened. For the first time in history, Reagan’s veto got overridden and the sanctions bill kicked in. The banks cut them off, they had to let Mandela out of jail, and the government fell.
Rail: Did you have any specific feedback from the African American community? You said there was no awareness in the US, which is paradoxical given how still today the country is racially divided.
Van Zandt: No. The Black community had its own problems with its own apartheid in America. And still do, by the way. More than ever now, maybe. So, they were not focused on South Africa. They had their own problems. Even the Black activists were not that involved. A few of them had mentioned it. Harry Belafonte had mentioned it, Randall Robinson. A few people were trying to get people’s attention, trying to boycott the companies that were still there, but nothing was happening. We really lit that fuse that made the thing explode and start to happen, but for the most part, nobody was really that engaged.
Rail: So, when they saw somebody like you coming along and raising this issue, did you get any support from them?
Van Zandt: No. When it finally came to an end, when Mandela came over for the fundraising trip, that’s when things got weird, that’s when, it seemed to me, the Black activist community discovered South Africa, you know. Then suddenly they owned it. And you know, I am not a liberal, so I don’t respect people because of the color of their skin. I am not afraid of people because of the color of their skin. I am not nice to people because of the color of their skin. I don’t like anybody. I don’t care who you are. You gotta earn my respect, whoever you are. So suddenly we had a bit of a problem. It always makes me laugh because you know, the extreme, they’re the ones who don’t think very well when it comes to racial problems… because if you have a racial problem, that involves more than one race by definition, and therefore the solution must also involve more than one race. And some of the more extreme guys, they don’t want anybody who is white involved in their racial problem. So good luck solving those problems without getting white people involved because we are the ones causing the problem. So, we’re the ones who need to help solving it. It’s in the book, a very detailed incident. But in the end, Mandela got his money, though we almost didn’t come up with the money. New York almost renegaded, and we had a Black mayor at the time, which would have been embarrassing. So, we saved the day, me and Bobby DeNiro and Spike Lee and Eddie Murphy. We helped them out after they were not very nice to us, but that’s OK.
Rail: The last section of the memoir unfolds the consciousness theme. You repeatedly point out what the ideology of American rhetoric refers to as “failure,” though you don’t use that word, programmatically, I think. You’re open about your personal regrets, and death becomes a haunting presence in the book. And yet by so doing one realizes that what’s left at the end of the book is true friendship, true love, meaningful relationship, and artistic self-fulfillment.
Van Zandt: First of all, what you call failures were artistic successes; those are the unrequited infatuations; that’s the list of the unrequited infatuations. The things you love the most, they don’t love you back. Of course, I was using a little bit of sense of humor by repeating “nobody heard it, nobody heard it.” But there is a truth in there too; that the things that mean most to me personally were not finding an audience. That happens sometimes. But again, the usefulness of the book is not in what you can’t do, but it’s what you do in spite of all that lack of success or lack of finding an audience. Can you move forward and keep going and get things done, find a way to get things done even though you don’t have the success that would make that easier, the celebrity that would make it easier, the money that would make it easier, the patron of the arts that would write you a check, here, take it, here’s a hundred million dollars, just keep up the good work? That’s not gonna happen. So, you’re gonna have to find a way to keep going. And I think in the end, I finish on a positive note. I wanted the book to be mostly positive, which it really is. I don’t dwell, I don’t call them failures, it is a failure to find an audience, but I don’t look back on anything I’ve ever done artistically and feel anything that I would change honestly. I really had to re-examine all my work when I wrote the book. I wouldn’t change a thing. I really enjoyed it, enjoyed reliving it, and even felt a little better about my mistakes because I saw why I did what I did. Again, I go through my whole life thinking that the biggest mistake that I ever made in my life was leaving the E Street Band. And then when you look at your whole life, everything that I have accomplished happened after I left. Yes, I wish I could have done both. Could I have done both? No. I would have never done solo records. I would have never done The Sopranos. I would have never done Lilyhammer. I would have never done the Sun City Project. I maybe would have produced a few records, but when you have a commitment to a band you gotta be there all the time, you can’t go off and do a TV show for six months. So, I felt better, to tell you the truth I felt a little better about my life after writing the book.
Rail: Is there anything that you left out that, now that the book is out, you wished you had put in?
Van Zandt: No. We left a lot of things out. I left out a lot of bad people. I forgot how many jerks there are in the world. I left a few in there, but believe me, I took a lot out. We jammed in as much as we could while still having it be coherent and have a story. You have to provide some context, any time you’re doing anything, give a little bit of the environment, give a little bit of what I am thinking, what I am doing, other people, provide a little context, or else the book just becomes a list. I did this, then I did that, then I did this. That’s not a book anymore. So, you have to take a few things out in order to have a comfortable amount of time on the important things, and I had a very good editor in Ben Greenman that helped me to keep a balance. The most important thing is to keep a balance between history, my narrative, and the crafts that I’ve been involved in. Those three things, if we can have them paralleled throughout the book, it’s gonna be a successful book because the crafts and the history parts to me are the most important, and that’s what I call the substance. My story is my story; it’s the least interesting part to me. But I wanted to be sure the book was useful, and in the end, I think the story ended up being useful. I hope.
Rail: All these years you’ve been writing: songs, scripts for the radio show etc., but this is a different kind of writing. How was the process of writing, how did it get to you?
Van Zandt: First thing, my editor was a big help. It was like a therapy session three times a week. I would write, and then we would discuss it, discuss what was going on. He would comment on what he thought was important to be in and something not important that could be left out. We kind of edited it as we went. The thing that concerns me the most is my voice. When I read a lot of biographies, they all sound the same because they have a co-writer. And the co-writer writes everything and there’s no personality, and they are all very homogenized. I was very clear to the publisher and to the editor: I am writing every word, first of all. But I thought, “How can I make it in my voice?” And what I thought was, I am going to picture doing the audiobook as I write. So, I told them: look, it’s not gonna look right, it’s not gonna be grammatically correct, it’s gonna have sentence fragments all over the place, it’s gonna look weird, but if you read it the way I am writing it, you’re gonna hear my voice. And they went along. The one thing everybody says to me is they hear my voice when they read the book. That’s important to me.
Rail: Yes, that’s important, especially in autobiography, unless you write it in the third person, which is a whole different ball game.
Van Zandt: I prefer it, by the way. I much prefer biography to autobiography, that’s why I wanted to do the whole thing in third person. But I got the prologue and the epilogue in the third person. That’s why the prologue is my favorite part of the book.
Rail: What’s the next chapter?
Van Zandt: I don’t know. I’ll be fixing the book for the next couple of months. I wanna fix some things for the paperback and fix some things for the e-book. Creatively, I am waiting to see what Bruce wants to do in 2022, see what this virus does. We may wait to play in stadiums, so we can be outside, maybe inside is a little scary. It depends on what the virus does. We’re concerned about the audience, not so much about us. We want them to be safe. The information right now is to wait until we can play outside, maybe next summer. But we’ll see. You’ll find out before I do, probably. But if not, I wanna get back on TV. And I also like to keep The Disciples of Soul together somehow, but of course I am gonna give Bruce priority. If he wants to go, I’ll be with him.
Rail: Do you have a TV show in your mind?
Van Zandt: I got many. I’ve got five scripts myself, I got twenty-five treatments, and then there’s Lilyhammer, which I would not rule out. I think there’s unfinished business there. I was very, very proud of that show. I even directed the final episode. I was very happy about that. I wanna direct more. We’ll see. Destiny will decide.